In my posting on a Continual Improvement Maturity Model, I invited readers to help expand and improve the model. Rob Worth made the excellent suggestion that such a model should also include an axis of collaboration, in addition to the other axes described there. He proposed a description of the various levels. Inspired by Rob’s suggestion and by some other models for collaboration maturity, I propose here a view on collaboration maturity levels.
In thinking through this issue, it became clear that collaboration maturity can mean many different things, according to the nature of the work being performed. Mature collaboration among a team of 8 scullers will be very different from mature collaboration among a group of product designers. Since my focus in these columns is on managing services, which is a form of knowledge work, I will focus here on collaboration among knowledge workers. This work is especially characterized by the high degree of variability in the types of tasks to perform, the size and complexity of those tasks, the skills required to perform the work and the cadence at which work arrives.
Before formalizing my thoughts on this subject, I took a look at other maturity models for collaboration and teamwork. Needless to say, there is a large number of them. A few words about the choices I have made in my own view. First, I do not limit myself to teams. As you will see, teams are not the only vehicle for collaboration. Indeed, while the lower levels of maturity occur essentially within the smallest organizational units, the breadth of collaboration increases with its maturity.
Next, it is frequent to see maturity models basing themselves on the five levels as defined in by the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model, and simply delineating what each level—Incomplete, Performed, Managed, Defined, Quantitatively Managed, Optimizing— means. I abjure this approach, as I find it too pat, too much of a Procrustean bed, to far away from the reality of what happens in organizations.
The scope of collaboration models is very broad and varied, often overlapping with other areas, especially leadership and management. If I had to define what I mean by collaboration, as a way of defining the scope of my model, I would say that it concerns how people interact with people to do work, with an emphasis on the people who do the transactional work, rather than on the people who lead or manage that work. For example, if we talk about the work of resolving a problem, I am particularly concerned with how the people in the problem solving group interact with each other. I am less concerned with how they interact with a problem manager or a line manager. But I recognize that the boundaries among collaboration, leadership and management are like lines of ink on which tears have fallen.
Finally, it became eminently clear that maturity models are somewhat like neural networks. Each of the axes in one maturity model may be composed, itself, of a series of axes each having its own maturity model. And all these models link together in a complex network. As you will see, my descriptions of the levels of collaboration involve repeating themes, such as communication, identity, organizational structure, decision making, emotional energy and others. Each of those themes may, in turn, be modeled and analyzed.
Without further ado, here is my description of six levels of maturity in collaboration:
Personal identity dominates team identity; people are stuck on their personal likes and dislikes of other people. People work together on an ad hoc basis only. Asking people to work with you, when it is not strictly necessary, is thought of as an admission that you are unable to do the work yourself, or as a result of laziness. Problems in performing work are hidden and communication about work is poor or non-existent. Questions that need to be decided often remain undecided. Collaboration is largely dysfunctional.
The focus of collaboration is essentially the smallest organizational unit to which you belong. You collaborate with your team members because it is your job to do so. Collaboration with suppliers and, heaven forbid, with customers, may also be necessary. The breadth of collaboration is generally limited to job and contract descriptions or, lacking clear descriptions, the instructions from a manager. Satisfaction is derived principally from personal success, or from not being requested to do anything outside of the habitual. Failure in work is often thought of as being the fault of a manager or of the other team members. If the work involves a large amount of variety in work products or cadence, a large amount of coordination effort is required. Communication about work within a team is largely along hierarchic lines and top down. Decision making is largely centralized, resting with hierarchic authority.
Collaboration occurs mainly within the limits of process descriptions. The level of collaboration is highly dependent on the coherence and the completeness of the processes being used. Satisfaction in work is the result of being part of a finely tuned machine. But when situations arise that are not defined by the process in use, the process operators do not easily take or share responsibility for handling the unexpected. Failure in work is often thought of as the fault of the process or tools being used, or from being asked to do work for which one is not responsible. Coordination effort is still important, but is proportional to the quality of the processes in use. Communication is formalized and occurs as required by the processes in use.
Team members start to focus more on the goals of their work and less on the process by which the goals are supposed to be achieved. Success is felt in terms of achieving the goals, rather than executing the work as agreed. In work, team membership identity starts to dominate personal likes and dislikes. The team starts to become self-organizing. Decision making becomes more decentralized. Team members start to readily stand in for or support other team members when the performance of others is too weak. Communication among collaborators becomes freer, as required to meet goals. However, process and organizational hierarchy are still the principal sources of authority in the team. Team spirit starts to become strong, but it might also be accompanied by an “us versus them” attitude.
Collaborators have a strong understanding of the goals of their work and are able to locally adapt how they work together to best achieve those goals. They can readily support each other and even replace each other in their work, as circumstances may require. Goals and performance start to dominate a respect for process for the sake of the process. Collaborators spontaneously optimize work. Failure becomes an occasion for improvement rather than a reason for blame. Collaborators energize and inspire each other. Ad hoc communication about work is very frequent, but has become increasingly telegraphic and codified. Body language might frequently complement or even replace verbal communication.
Coordination effort among collaborators becomes very low, insofar as an understanding of each collaborator’s strengths and weaknesses is well known. Playing appropriate roles that fit well together has become second nature to the collaborators. To an external viewer, a group of collaborators appears to be able to attack any sort of job with no planning or coordination at all. They all just set to doing the needed work, and seem to finish in record time. Decisions are made and consensus achieved with a strict minimum of overhead. Collaborators become increasingly open to and welcoming of new collaborators, be they new employees or people from other parts of the organization with which they do not usually collaborate. While the goals and the vision that underpins collaboration remain well understood by the collaborators, they are also able to adapt that vision as circumstances change, with a minimum of disruption to work.
Collaboration and continual improvement
According to this view of collaboration, as it becomes more mature the performance of continual improvement (and any other work, for that matter) is likely to increase. But collaboration is not the sole determinant of performance, so the axes should remain separate. It is clear, too, that maturity in intent parallels an increased maturity in collaboration. But again, a team might collaborate superbly well and still have no intent to make improvements.
The photograph accompanying this article is a U.S. Navy photo by Utilitiesman 2nd Class Vuong Ta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.